guest post – Nancy Gray

The Left Side of Scotland


In 1981 I took a six month leave of absence from the book biz, handed my shop over to a friend, and went to live in Dunoon, Scotland. Imagine yourself standing in London, looking north up the map across the border, and Dunoon is to your left, on the west coast. Lots of Americans lived there at that time, because the Navy had a sub tender base nearby. Dunoon had many small shops, banks that closed every day from 12 to 2, a Safeway, and the best little Oxfam Shop in the Universe. In those halcyon days, Oxfam didn’t have to send all donations to Central Sorting for up-pricing: if it came in the door they shelved it and sold it. Book prices were usually from 10p to 70p, once in a while up to three quid. The book priced at three pounds was a sadly worn copy of “The Torch is Passed.” The nice little lady who did the books was certain one of the Americans would want to buy it, but no. She had it in the window for awhile, but that didn’t move it out, either.

Runners (British for book scouts) didn’t venture to the North much (not even Driff) so the harvest was always excellent. I swear, books simply jumped off the shelf at us. We had only to pay and pack. My boyfriend took to bringing his sea bag along on our excursions. Oxfam first, then over the water to bookshops in Greenock, Helensburgh, and Paisley. We soon made friends with all the dealers in the area. I was Nancy, and my boyfriend —heavy seabag over his shoulder—was “Nancy’s mule.” We joined them in pub crawls from time to time and we were soon privy to all the dark corners of their part of the book world. I should perhaps say here that my boyfriend didn’t drink, and that my usual tipple was a half of Shandy. (Shandy: half beer, half lemonade. The Brits call it the childrens’ drink.) I’m sure our new book buddies often revealed more than they later recalled saying. One example: “Riddled with class differences, we are.” A bitter, bitter voice. “We’re not good enough for THEIR bookfairs. Oh, no, it’s Provincial Bookfairs for the likes of us. Sod them.” And this: “D’you know, some people say that all Glasgow booksellers are drunks? I say, sod them, as well, AND the horse they rode in on.”

The weekend set aside for the Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association arrived. All our friends had booths. I was there, eager to be part of everything. I missed being behind the bookseller’s counter. I missed my shop, and the exchange of nice crisp books for nice useful cash. Then the committee-in-charge-of-everything told me I would not be allowed to sell in the booths. Nothing personal, but I wasn’t British. Nothing they could do about it, it was just the rule, and they hoped I would understand. I had fun anyway, floating around, ferrying cups of tea, stacking pamphlets, chatting.

It was about four o’clock when it became obvious that a certain bookseller who had sworn a mighty oath that this time, for this fair, HE WOULD STAY STONE-COLD SOBER, hadn’t. His bottles had been under his table, hidden by a booth curtain, and now we all watched him as, slowly. . .slowly. . .he slide down to join them. I was the only dealer present without a booth to tend: my duty was clear. Never mind the sodding rules, just don’t let the punters see this. Three hours till shut-down time. I stepped into his place behind the table, and it may be that my foot nudged his somnolent body a bit. Just to make sure he was completely out of sight.

When the fair ended, I counted up his takings, handed them in, accepted the thanks due me, and James and I rode the train back to our half-house in Dunoon, a house now full of wonderful Scottish books waiting to be shipped home. O’ the Scots, what a great people! They traveled the world, propped up the Empire, retired when their strength failed—and then came home to write doughty books about their adventures. My customers loved books like this.

Next morning, because I had committed myself to do it, I sat down at my kitchen table and wrote a balanced account of yesterday’s doings for Antiquarian Bookman. Weather, attendance, costs per seller, prices realized—all the usual. Of course, there wasn’t a word in it about the goings-on I’ve just told you about. So now you know it all. At least, all I intend to tell.

– Nancy @ Nancy Gray’s Books
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